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Falcons and caracaras
Temporal range: OligoceneHolocene, 30.2–0 Ma
Brown falcon
(Falco berigora)
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Leach, 1819
Type genus
Linnaeus, 1758


The falcons and caracaras are around 65 species of diurnal birds of prey that make up the family Falconidae (representing all extant species in the order Falconiformes). The family is divided into three subfamilies: Herpetotherinae, which includes the laughing falcon and forest falcons; Polyborinae, which includes the spot-winged falconet and the caracaras; and Falconinae, the falcons and kestrels (Falco) and falconets (Microhierax).


Falcons and caracaras are small to medium-sized birds of prey, ranging in size from the black-thighed falconet, which can weigh as little as 35 grams (1.2 oz), to the gyrfalcon, which can weigh as much as 1,735 grams (61.2 oz). They have strongly hooked bills, sharply curved talons and excellent eyesight. The plumage is usually composed of browns, whites, chestnut, black and grey, often with barring of patterning. There is little difference in the plumage of males and females, although a few species have some sexual dimorphism in boldness of plumage.

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The family has a cosmopolitan distribution across the world, absent only from the densest forest of central Africa, some remote oceanic islands, the high Arctic and Antarctica. Some species have exceptionally wide ranges, particularly the cosmopolitan peregrine falcon, which ranges from Greenland to Fiji and has the widest natural breeding distribution of any bird. Other species have more restricted distributions, particularly island endemics like the Mauritius kestrel. Most habitat types are occupied, from tundra to rainforest and deserts, although they are generally more birds of open country and even forest species tend to prefer broken forest and forest edges. Some species, mostly in the genus Falco, are fully migratory, with some species summering in Eurasia and wintering entirely in Africa, other species may be partly migratory. The Amur falcon has one of the longest migrations, moving from East Asia to southern Africa.[1]


Diet and feeding[edit]

The laughing falcon is a snake-eating specialist

Falcons and caracaras are carnivores, feeding on birds, small mammals including bats,[2] reptiles, insects and carrion. In popular imagination the falconids are fast flying predators, and while this is true of the genus Falco and some falconets, other species, particularly the caracaras, are more sedentary in their feeding. The forest falcons of the Neotropics are generalist forest hunters. Several species, particularly the true falcons, will stash food supplies in caches.[3] They are solitary hunters and pairs guard territories, although they may form large flocks during migration. Some species are specialists, such as the laughing falcon, which specialises in snakes; others are more generalist in their diet.


The red-footed falcon is unusual in being a colonial breeding falcon

The falcons and caracaras are generally solitary breeders, although around 10% of species are colonial, for example the red-footed falcon.[4] They are monogamous, although some caracaras may also employ alloparenting strategies, where younger birds help adults (usually their parents) in raising the next brood of chicks. Nests are generally not built (except by the caracaras), but are co opted from other birds, for example pygmy falcons nest in the nests of weavers, or on the ledges on cliffs. Around 2–4 eggs are laid, and mostly incubated by the female. Incubation times vary from species to species and are correlated with body size, lasting 28 days in smaller species and up to 35 days in larger species. Chicks fledge after 28–49 days, again varying with size.

Relations with humans[edit]

Falcons and caracaras have a complicated relationship with humans. In ancient Egypt they were deified in the form of Horus, the sky and sun god who was the ancestor of the pharaohs. Caracaras also formed part of the legends of the Aztecs. Falcons were important in the (formerly often royal) sport of falconry. They have also been persecuted for their predation on game and farm animals, and that persecution has led to the extinction of at least one species, the Guadalupe caracara. Several insular species have declined dramatically, none more so than the Mauritius kestrel, which at one time numbered no more than four birds. Around five species of falcon are considered vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, including the saker falcon.

Taxonomy and systematics[edit]

The family Falconidae was introduced by the English zoologist William Elford Leach in a guide to the contents of the British Museum published in 1819.[5][6]ral History | place=New York | page=133 | hdl=2246/830 }}</ref> The family is composed of three main branches: the falconets and true falcons, the caracaras, and the forest falcons. Differences exist between authorities in how these are grouped into subfamilies. Also, the placement of the laughing falcon (Herpetotheres) and the spot-winged falconet (Spiziapteryx) varies. One common approach uses two subfamilies Polyborinae and Falconinae. The first contains the caracaras, forest falcons, and laughing falcon. All species in this group are native to the Americas.[7]

The composition of Falconidae is disputed, and Polyborninae is not featured in the American Ornithologists' Union checklists for North and South American birds that are produced by its Classification Committees (NACC and SACC). The Check-list of North American Birds considers the laughing falcon a true falcon (Falconinae) and replaces Polyborinae with Caracarinae and Micrasturinae.[8] On the other hand, the Check-list of South American Birds classifies all caracaras as true falcons and puts the laughing falcon and forest falcons into the subfamily Herpetotherinae.[9]

Falconinae, in its traditional classification, contains the falcons, falconets, and pygmy falcons.[10] Depending on the authority, Falconinae may also include the caracaras and/or the laughing falcon.[9][11]


The following cladogram is based on a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study of the Falconidae by Jérôme Fuchs and collaborators that was published in 2015. The number of species is taken from the list of birds maintained by Frank Gill, Pamela Rasmussen and David Donsker on behalf of the International Ornithological Committee (IOC).[12][13] Fuchs and collaborators recommended that the genus Daptrius should be expanded to include the genera Phalcoboenus and Milvago due to the shallow genetic divergence. This change has been adopted by the Clements Checklist but not by the IOC.[13][12][14]


Herpetotheres – laughing falcon

Micrastur – 7 species (forest falcons)


Polihierax – pygmy falcon

Microhierax – 5 species (falconets)

Neohierax – white-rumped falcon

Falco – 39 species (falcons and kestrels)


Spiziapteryx – spot-winged falconet

Caracara – 2 species (caracaras)

Ibycter – red-throated caracara

Phalcoboenus – 4 species (caracaras)

Daptrius – black caracara

Milvago – 2 species (caracaras)

List of genera[edit]

Below is list of the subfamilies and genera of the Falconidae.[13]

Subfamily Image Genus Species
Herpetotherinae Micrastur G.R. Gray, 1841 – forest falcons
Herpetotheres Vieillot, 1817 – laughing falcon
Polyborinae Spiziapteryx Kaup, 1852
Caracara Merrem, 1826 – crested caracara
Ibycter Vieillot, 1816
Milvago Spix, 1824 – brown caracaras
Daptrius Vieillot, 1816
Phalcoboenus d'Orbigny, 1834
Falconinae Microhierax Sharpe, 1874 – typical falconets
Polihierax Kaup, 1847
Neohierax Swann, 1922
Falco Linnaeus, 1758 – true falcons, hobbies and kestrels

Fossil genera[edit]


  1. ^ Tordoff, Andrew (2002). "Raptor migration at Hoang Lien Nature Reserve, northern Vietnam" (PDF). Forktail. 18: 45–48. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-10.
  2. ^ Mikula, P., Morelli, F., Lučan, R. K., Jones, D. N., & Tryjanowski, P. (2016). Bats as prey of diurnal birds: a global perspective. Mammal Review.
  3. ^ Collopy, M.W. (1977). "Food Caching by Female American Kestrels in Winter". Condor. 79 (1): 63–68. doi:10.2307/1367531. JSTOR 1367531.
  4. ^ Ille, R.; Hoi, H.; Grinschgl, F.; Zink, F. (2002). "Paternity assurance in two species of colonially breeding falcon: the kestrel Falco tinnunculus and the red-footed falcon Falco vespertinus". Etologica. 10: 11–15.
  5. ^ Leach, William Elford (1819). "Eleventh Room". Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum (15th ed.). London: British Museum. pp. 63-68 [63]. The name of the author is not specified in the document, Leach was the Keeper of Zoology at the time.
  6. ^ Bock, Walter J. (1994). History and Nomenclature of Avian Family-Group Names. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. Vol. Number 222. New York: American Museum of Natural History. pp. 133, 245.
  7. ^ Myers, P. R.; C. S. Parr; T. Jones; G. S. Hammond; T. A. Dewey. "Subfamily Polyborinae (caracaras and forest falcons)". Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
  8. ^ "Check-list of North American Birds". North American Classification Committee. American Ornithologists' Union. Archived from the original on 2011-06-06. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
  9. ^ a b "A classification of the bird species of South America". South American Classification Committee. American Ornithologists' Union. Archived from the original on August 1, 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
  10. ^ Myers, P. R.; C. S. Parr; T. Jones; G. S. Hammond; T. A. Dewey. "Subfamily Falconinae (falcons)". Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan. Retrieved 2009-08-17.
  11. ^ "Check-list of North American Birds". North American Classification Committee. American Ornithologists' Union. Archived from the original on 2011-06-06. Retrieved 2009-08-17.
  12. ^ a b Fuchs, J.; Johnson, J.A.; Mindell, D.P. (2015). "Rapid diversification of falcons (Aves: Falconidae) due to expansion of open habitats in the Late Miocene". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 82: 166–182. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2014.08.010. PMID 25256056.
  13. ^ a b c Gill, Frank; Donsker, David; Rasmussen, Pamela, eds. (January 2023). "Seriemas, falcons". IOC World Bird List Version 13.1. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 4 February 2023.
  14. ^ Clements, J.F.; Schulenberg, T.S.; Iliff, M.J.; Fredericks, T.A.; Gerbracht, J.A.; Lepage, D.; Billerman, S.M.; Sullivan, B.L.; Wood, C.L. (2022). "The eBird/Clements Checklist of Birds of the World: v2022". Retrieved 4 February 2023.
  15. ^ PVPH 465: a phalanx 1 of the middle toe. A caracara? Possibly belongs in extant genus. Kramarz, Alejandro: Garrido, Alberto; Forasiepi, Analía; Bond, Mariano & Tambussi, Claudia (2005): Estratigrafía y vertebrados (Aves y Mammalia) de la Formación Cerro Bandera, Mioceno Temprano de la Provincia del Neuquén, Argentina. Revista Geológica de Chile 32(2): 273–291. HTML fulltext

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